Singapore's netballers raise the bar

The Singapore netball team are on the right track, having risen from 21st in the world four years ago to No. 15 and winning the SEA Games gold on home soil in June.
The Singapore netball team are on the right track, having risen from 21st in the world four years ago to No. 15 and winning the SEA Games gold on home soil in June.PHOTO: MATTHIAS HO FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

S'pore cement status as best in Asia and now target top-12 spot in World Cup in Australia

When the Singapore netball team arrive today at the new Netball Central complex in Sydney's Olympic Park for their World Cup opening match against Sri Lanka, they will find themselves in a markedly different place than when they competed at the last edition in 2011.

Literally, since Singapore played host four years ago, but more so figuratively.

Singapore's netballers have made huge strides in their neat red dresses since the last edition of the quadrennial tournament when it was still called the World Netball Championship.

In 2011, Singapore were ranked 21st in the world.

They suffered five straight defeats - including a 51-62 loss to Asian rivals Sri Lanka - before beating Malaysia to finish 15th in the 16-side tournament.

HIGHER TARGET

We've cracked the ceiling in Asia and we're kingpins in Asia. That is something we want to maintain but now we're looking at the world stage.

PREMILA HIRUBALAN on the team not being content with being regional queens

Since then, the team have kept a stranglehold on the continental crown, winning the 2012 and 2014 Asian Championships. They are the top-ranked Asian nation in the world at No. 15 while Sri Lanka are No. 22 and Malaysia No. 23.

Success in recent years means that merely being Asia's top side is no longer good enough for the Singapore team.

Said shooter Chen Hui Fen, a veteran with 101 caps and featuring in her third World Cup: "We don't want to just be happy that we're Asia's best. We want to be better, step out of the region and earn a name for ourselves.

"We have this feeling that we're able to win games."

Singapore are also grouped with world No. 5 South Africa and No. 6 Malawi in Pool C at the World Cup, which features 16 teams who have earned qualification.

Defender Premila Hirubalan, the most experienced player with 104 caps, recalls how Singapore have always been caught in a seesaw battle with Sri Lanka but never looked back after 2012, and have not lost to Malaysia in 12 years.

She said: "We've cracked the ceiling in Asia and we're kingpins in Asia. That is something we want to maintain but now we're looking at the world stage."

For her, the team are on the right track. Singapore were neck and neck with then-world No. 5 Fiji at the 2011 World Championship, before losing 47-57 in extra time.

The team also posted victories against higher-ranked teams like Botswana and Papua New Guinea at last year's Nations Cup before losing 41-50 to Samoa in the final.

Said Premila, who is hoping for a top-12 finish in Sydney: "We've been so successful in the last couple of years that everyone hungers for more.

" We're good enough to get there and I think eventually we will."

The Aug 7-16 World Cup, which is likely to be yet another contest between defending champions Australia and New Zealand for the crown, will be Kimberly Lim's first overseas tournament.

She said: "I'm a bit more jittery this time but I've not experienced this level of play before, so I'm really looking forward to learning from the other teams."

In a way, it will also be an unfamiliar setting for coach Ruth Aitken, who for the first time is leading a team other than her native New Zealand to the event. She has won it both as a player and a coach.

She said: "Our resilience will be tested a lot more at the World Cup than at the SEA Games (Singapore won gold, beating Malaysia in the final) or Asian Championships.

"But we're excited by the opportunity to test ourselves against the best in the world, and we want to go and give ourselves the best chance to compete."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2015, with the headline 'NETBALLERS RAISE THE BAR'. Print Edition | Subscribe